It is quite unusual to find Economist magazine starting an attack on scientists, while journals like Nature and Cell go on the defensive. Science reporting by mainstream media seems to have entered a new phase.
Early Days of Science Reporting by Media
When we were PhD students, scientists had very little interaction with the media. We tried to follow Feynman’s philosophy (please see “Cargo Cult Science”), where he expressly forbade scientists to do ‘advertising’ and ‘marketing’ (synonymous to ‘lying’) regarding their work. We remember only one professor from our physics department being chased by the media, because his paper explained how the baseball bat worked. It was one of his side projects and he took the extra attention with some level of discomfort and embarrassment. It was quite different atmosphere compared to today, when blogs ask scientists to embrace marketing (e.g. “In Defense Of Marketing: Life Scientists Should Embrace, Not Eschew It” ).
Post-2000: Papers Came out with Press Releases
The biggest shift came after 2000, when the government allocated large chunk of extra money to genomics and especially human genomics for no good reason. Almost every paper wanted to get published in Science or Nature, every publication ‘revealed’ new secret of nature (check “Shocking Finding that a Genome by Itself Provides Little Insight” for a large collection of revealing titles) and every paper came out with a grandiose press release.
How did the scientists get access to the media? Usually after a paper got accepted in Science, Nature or Cell, the journals set up interviews with friendly science reporters. The ‘science reporter’ knew very little science and was deferential toward the supposedly super-intelligent person (judged by pedigree), aka scientist. The scientist could feed her with any cock and bull story. Most older scientists chose not to, but younger ones were often trained differently.
2013: Scientists in Trouble
The sands seem to have shifted again. We are noticing the emergence of more aggressive mainstream media, which does not want to remain deferential toward the scientists. We already linked to the Economist commentary. LA Times also published an article complaining about the lack of replication. Slate magazine chose to go fully hostile, as you can see from the tones of many commentaries.
But many of the tweetsor any frank geneticistwill also tell you stories of struggle and confusion: The current list of cancer-risk genes, the detection of which leads some people to have real organs removed, likely contains many false positives, even as standard diagnostic sequencing techniques are missing many disease-causing mutations. Theres a real possibility that the majority of cancer predisposition genes in databases are wrong. And a sharp team of geneticists just last week cleanly dismantled a hyped study from last year that claimed to find a genetic signature of autism clear enough to diagnose the risk of it in unborn children.
This sample reads like an abstract of the entire field of genetics. In researching a book about genetics over the past four years, Ive found a field that stands in a bizarre but lovely state of confusiontaken aback, but eager to advance; balanced tenuously between wild ambition and a deep but troubling humility. In the 13 years since the sequencing of the first human genome, the field has solved puzzles that 14 years ago seemed hopeless. Yet geneticists with any historical memory hold a painful awareness that their field has fallen short of the glory that seemed close at hand when Francis Collins, Craig Venter, and Bill Clinton announced their apparent triumph in June 2000.
These high expectations for noncoding DNA peaked last fall thanks to an ambitious project known as ENCODE. It set out to catalogue every last bit of noncoding DNA in the human genome. It cost $288 million and produced a supernova burst of 30 scientific papers last September, including an overview article in Nature with 442 co-authors. Given its size and scope, ENCODE covered a lot. But its leaders trumpeted one main finding above all: that 80 percent of noncoding DNA had some sort of biological function. This was like Columbus discovering five new continents at oncewhole new worlds of unexpected genetic activity and potential therapeutic targets to exploit. If the Human Genome Project deflated hopes about genetic medicine, ENCODE pumped them right back up.
All the while, however, a few scientists were grumbling about ENCODE, and in a slew of papers from earlier this year, they argued that ENCODE was vastly overselling itself.
And what is this? Saint Francis (Collins) is not a saint anymore?
Why in the world are the National Institutes of Health and the Smithsonian Institution celebrating the 10th anniversary of the sequencing of the human genome this year?
They didnt miss a deadline or mess up the math. By designating 2003 as the year the genome was sequenced, the NIH is still fighting against Celera. Its laying exclusive claim for credit and trying to push its rival out of the history books. Its trying to give the leaders of the public consortium an edge in the battle for the inevitable Nobel Prize.The Celera genome paper had more than 200 authors, and the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortiums paper listed more than 300, from 25 institutions. The Nobel Prize can be split only three ways.
Is creating another organization to independently replicate all experiment the solution? In twitter, we had several exchanges with @pathogenomenick and others, where we sided with Mina Bissell, the author of Nature commentary. In part II, we will explain our reasoning and discuss what the scientists can do get the genie back into the bottle.